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How to Infuriate Professional Musicians

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As a professional musician, I often get some really odd requests and a lot of times people cannot understand why their simple, friendly request gets me so hot under the collar. There's a simple explanation for that, and it is because their requests violate basic etiquette and social norms. However, the people who make those requests refuse to see that this is the case. So here is a primer on how to make sure your musician friend never speaks to you again.

Credit: Public Domain

Ask Them to Perform for Free

Whether it's the ubiquitous "Oh, just sing one note" (that's never enough), or some other demand, just like anyone else, professional musicians expect to be paid for their work, just like anyone else. Nobody is demanding that CPAs or doctors give out free samples. Yes, it's true that those occupations aren't nearly as entertaining for the casual bystander, but it doesn't make a difference.

In my networking groups, I often (as CPAs and lawyers do) give general advice on music, vocal health, music lessons, and the like. But I cannot number the times people have come up to me and suggested (as if nobody had ever thought of it before) that I sing for the group. They are always surprised when I refuse. Here's why:

  1. Just as with any other profession, a musical performance requires preparation. You wouldn't pounce on a tax preparer to jump into the middle of a negotiation with the IRS without knowing  the situation in advance, and certainly not to provide you with a solution in the usual thirty seconds allotted for a networking commercial; or ask a mechanic (who doesn't have his tools handy) to diagnose the problem with your car, or any one of a number of similar situations. Why should musicians be any different?
  2. The "just sing one note" request doesn't work because a) one note is never enough to satisfy someone; and b) people can't really tell anything from just one note.
  3. Singers especially are not accustomed to performing unaccompanied, so unless there's a piano, a talented accompanist, and the singer happens to have their sheet music handy, you're not going to get a good experience.
  4. Professional musicians who play for other musicians know that their skills will be appreciated. Unsophisticated audiences do not know what they are hearing and are unlikely to be impressed with something that would wow an audition judge. Audiences who wish to show respect to the musicians learn something about the pieces and the requirements to play them in advance.
  5. Professional musicians may be under contract to an organization or employer, or may be members of a union. If so, that restricts the conditions under which they can perform, and if they violate those conditions, they might be sued.
  6. Reeds, strings, the hair on a bow, and many other items are consumables. If a musician employs any of those in their instrument, you are asking them to pay in order to play for you. You wouldn't believe how expensive some of these items can be!
  7. Musical instruments can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Every time an instrument leaves the musician's house, they run the risk of theft or damage to their instruments. Some instruments are irreplaceable. The wrong temperature or humidity, a spilled drink, or an accident can irreparably damage an instrument and interrupt a professional's career.
  8. Just like athletes, every time a musician performs, they run a small but real risk of a career-ending injury. To ask them to play for free is simply not fair to them.
  9. Professional musicians use contracts, which specify not only their salary, but also their working conditions, including conditions for their instruments, attire, and many other factors that go into a performance. Those conditions are there for reasons that make sense to performers.
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Even Worse . . .

Invite them to a party and ask them to perform

Now you've put the musician in a quandary: do they maintain their integrity and publicly humiliate you by refusing, or perform and resent you forever? Either way is likely to cause bad feelings for someone, and when added to the daily insults most musicians face, can end a friendship permanently. Especially don't pretend that your friend is the guest of honor at a dinner party and then ask them to play or sing for their supper!

Say, "I want to hear you perform"

But . . .

People often tell musicians how much they want to hear them perform, but they assume that they will not have to buy a ticket and are offended when a musician suggests it. They are even more offended when the musician pulls out a CD and offers to sell it to them! The other assumption that many people make is that every performance a musician is engaged for is somehow open to the public, as if they never work at wedding receptions, private parties, funerals, closed church services, and other venues not open to the public.

It's Not a Hobby, It's a Job!

As much as you might think it would be fun to "just play music all the time," remember that your friend has to pay the bills, and this is their day job, not a fun pastime. Asking them to perform for free is equivalent to asking any other professional to provide you with their services for free. Don't do it.

(By the way, don't offer to let your massage therapist friend "practice" on you for free, either. You'll get an earful.)



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